Colleges, like UC Merced, urged to fight sexual violence

Most campuses 'duck issue,' expert warns

yamaro@mercedsunstar.comAugust 15, 2012 

— College campuses like UC Merced need to make a lot of improvements in how they respond to, investigate and deal with sexual violence cases, a nationally known expert in the handling of such cases said Wednesday.

David Lisak, who has spent more than two decades researching how campuses handle such cases, said more needs to be done to increase the number of successful prosecutions.

"I think most universities around the country have spent most of their time ducking this issue," he said.

Lisak gave several presentations throughout the day at UC Merced and held a community forum. Today he will conduct a training session on the issue for law enforcement officers from Merced County and will give another public presentation at UC Merced.

On Wednesday he also met with the UC Merced campus investigation team, which consists of housing, law enforcement and judicial affairs officials. His visit was made possible by a grant from Mountain Crisis Services Inc.

"There's a feeling among most universities that sexual assaults are something parents shouldn't know about -- it's bad publicity," Lisak said. "There's a lack of integrity to that.

"We know there are serious problems of sexual violence on college campuses, and it's really the responsibility of the university to do everything they possibly can to reduce the amount of sexual violence and to respond appropriately," Lisak said.

In 2011, 56 people affiliated with UC Merced -- students, staff and faculty -- utilized advocacy services, according to university statistics. Nineteen of those were for sexual assault, 26 were for domestic violence and 11 for stalking.

Forty-eight percent of the victims made a report to law enforcement. The national average for victims who report to law enforcement is only 5 percent, said Kari Mansager, director of the violence prevention program at UC Merced.

Training, awareness

Mansager credits the high rate of reporting at UC Merced to well-trained officers and the university's requirement to make all incoming students attend at least one mandatory violence intervention and prevention program.

Students learn to identify what's illegal and what's not, she said.

However, only two out of 27 cases reported to law enforcement at UC Merced in 2011 were successfully prosecuted, statistics show. And the offenders in those two cases were strangers to the victims, Mansager said.

It is much more difficult to successfully prosecute offenders who are acquaintances than strangers, Lisak said. The vast majority of offenders know their victims. For example, at UC Merced in 2011, 93 percent of perpetrators were acquaintances, according to the statistics.

It's more difficult to prosecute "non-stranger sexual assaults" because there's an understanding that a stranger has a mask and weapons, so the crime is far more terrible, Lisak said.

People need to understand that non-stranger sexual assaults have the same kind of impact, he said.

"Those non-stranger rapists are also real offenders and so they have many, many victims that they are responsible for, and there's a tremendous amount of injury, not only to those victims, but to the whole community," Lisak said.

The key for campus law enforcement officers is to build stronger cases against perpetrators that will lead to successful prosecutions, he said. To do that, Lisak said, they need to launch two investigations: one on the incident and one on the alleged offender.

"Only after we have done a thorough investigation we can determine, was this a one-time incident that occurred?" Lisak said. "Or, are there prior offenses and are there other potential victims out there?"

And there needs to be more education about sexual violence on campus in the surrounding communities so people will have a better understanding of the seriousness of these crimes, he said.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or yamaro@mercedsunstar.com.

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